Sometimes you’ve got to get back to your roots. The evolution of design, fashion, music, culture and most definitely food, is both inevitable and fantastic; but despite being all for the progress of useful arts I still feel that taking a step back in time is necessary for any scholar. To fully appreciate the present, one must acknowledge generations past. As you may well know, Los Angeles has extremely rich history when it comes to burgers. Though widely recognized for the first time in 1904 at the St. Louis World’s Fair, the burger’s plight to become an American staple really began in 1940, when the McDonald Brothers opened their first restaurant in San Bernardino. I’ll spare you a thorough history lesson, but the result is a local landscape sprinkled with burger joints that have been around since before there was such thing as disco. (If you fancy further reading, the Wikipedia page for Hamburgers is pretty informative. Also, the beginning of “Fast Food Nation” has tons of interesting facts about how and why California became the burger hub it is, but read past the 2nd chapter at your own peril. Fast food is nasty). There actually is a reason I am talking about this, and it is called Pie ‘N Burger.
Nestled behind a lush hedge on California Blvd., Pie ‘N Burger is the dividing line between residences and the small businesses of Pasadena. Having opened its doors in 1963, it appears to have not changed much if at all since, at least based on what I imagine it to have looked like fifty years ago. Reportedly the menu’s modifications are negligible as well, including but not limited to the Chili Dog, which was hand painted at some point in its own little bubble on a menu board old enough to have seen us through nine Presidents. The menu is neither sparse nor overwhelming (as menus can sometimes be at diner style restaurants), but how many or few items it boasts is functionally irrelevant. You go for the pie, and you go for the burger.
Naturally, the general vibe of this place combined with its menu and the overwhelming praise thereof had my inner fat kid squealing with delight, and ostensibly over-ordering. I had the pie (2 of them actually) and the burger, and fries and a chocolate malt. Total overkill, but generally fantastic. The malt was entertaining but way too sweet; it was literally syrupy. Describing a milkshake as too sweet may seem oxymoronic but it really was excessive to the point I could only drink a little of it, and the meal’s singular weak link.
The burger however, couldn’t have been further from weak, and I had a delightful revelation while describing it. I intended to identify Pie ‘N Burger’s burger as Southern Cali style (Oinkster, In N Out, TK’s, etc.) minus the tomato, when I realized that that happens to refer to the exact same components that a Big Mac possesses. Mind BLOWN. Juicy beef, lettuce, pickles, onion, 1000 Island, and American cheese make this burger comfortable and familiar, but shine in a way that McDonalds food likely hasn’t since the days of its inception, if ever. It was hearty and sloppy, but manageable and oh so delicious. Despite having numerous edible distractions, I don’t recall setting this burger down before it was gone. An order of fries was plenty for 2 people, and the likelihood of engagement in conversation with a Pie ‘N Burger evangelist was high, though unequivocally enjoyable.
Yet another of Pie ‘N Burger’s dependable joys is predictably the first half of its name, pie. I had the boysenberry and the pecan, but there were a slew of other traditional pies available, and while none really test boundaries in terms of what a pie can be or do, each is probably about as good a version of that type of pie as one could ever possibly find. The pecan pie was really rich but somehow not too sweet, and the pecans on top were soft rather than over-candied (which is really hard to do, if you’ve never made one). The only reason I can’t rank it number 1 is because I am privileged enough to have a Southern Mom. The boysenberry though, was the best boysenberry pie I’ve tasted. Simple and perfect. Simple, and perfect.
Bougie burger fans, this place does not have what you’re used to. I liken your burgers to the stunningly attractive French girl who makes smoking and being bad at dancing somehow look good, and who has you wishing you’d actually gotten into contemporary art in college. Well this burger is her dad, the All American football hero who decided to make Paris his home after being stationed on an Air Force base there during the Vietnam War. He’s parted his hair the same way for half a century and get’s up at 5:25a.m. no matter what day it is. He says polite things to strangers and is never without an appropriate grandfatherly metaphor like “you can’t pay someone to do your pushups for you!” At a glance, you might overlook just how charming this guy really is, but get to know him. You’ll appreciate his daughter so much more once you have.
– Geoff Sawyer